Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.

Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Taking Turns

“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang.  “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon.  Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.”  The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained.  The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge.  It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning.  Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay.  At least until academia takes another turn.  Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say.  And academics are capital imitators.

Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies.  This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs.  Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way.  At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.”  The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in.  The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet.  There’s no need for any divine character or intervention.  There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.

I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn.  To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value.  I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we.  The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited.  We can’t touch naked reality even if we try.  Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling.  It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit.  Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn.  Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.

Creating Science

Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?

Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.

In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.

The Science of Being Human

Not so long ago, when I was still a professor, a colleague told me he had no interest in science. We studied religion, he reasoned, and science had little to add. I was in the midst of a research project at the time. That project was exploring how what we know of evolution (or knew at the time) might inform our understanding of ancient texts. Of course, I was working in relative isolation, noting in my cover letters to universities that my research would benefit from an institution with a cooperative and collegial atmosphere between the sciences and humanities. If you’ve read this blog before, you know how that ended. No cooperative schools ever thought such research was worth sponsoring. After all, there are younger, less expensive specialists out there examining ancient religions in microscopic detail. The rest of the world, of course, wonders why.

This divide, as so eloquently delineated by Marcelo Gleiser in a piece on NPR, is starting to grow narrower. Science is taking us, in many fields, very close to the humanities. And we can’t make sense of some of it without admitting our human limitations. This is what I so admire about Gleiser’s writing—he is a scientist who understands that arrogance has no place in intellectual inquiry. Biology, as I long ago expected, holds one of the keys of this dilemma. Our brains evolved for a specific purpose—to help us survive in a predatory world. They did not evolve into processing systems to comprehend, as one sage put it, life, the universe, and everything. No one brain can hold all that knowledge. Like it or not, that brain in human. And humans need humanities.

Some scholars among the humanities like to claim that science has reached too far. The problem is, any scholar who is a true scholar is also a scientist. We use scientific methods to understand our admittedly speculative, or at least subjective, subject matter. Science isn’t the enemy here. Arrogance is. As Gleiser has stated in other venues, we have to approach the world with humility. We know so very little. Part of that world is that beyond human reach, and part of that world is what humans have done. They’re both part of the larger picture. But humans live on a small planet that we now know is only one of many, many more throughout the visible universe. And we know the visible universe is only part of the story. But we can’t be honest if we forget that the minds trying to understand all this are, no matter how evolved, only human.

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First Stronghold

FIRST Robotics has a way of getting into your blood. Like many people of my generation, I learned about FIRST Robotics through my daughter. Our local high school has a robotics team and, as we quickly learned, the decision to join FIRST is a four-year family commitment. My wife and I were both involved at some level, despite being the world’s least likely engineers. I even served a term as the president of the foundation (responsible for funding the team). We made lasting friendships and grew in the lingo and odd humor that is FIRST. The founder and chief promoter of FIRST, Dean Kamen, is an unapologetic geek and has helped develop what some journalists are calling “the new cool.” Yesterday was launch. If you are a FIRST follower, I don’t have to explain that. In case you’re not, “launch” is the revelation of this year’s game. Teams now have six weeks to plan, design, and build their robots.

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Launch is a big deal. We haven’t been part of the competition for three years now and we still watch the live web-broadcast. The major players (Kamen, and Woodie Flowers) get in character and meet kids from various teams. They give inspirational talks. Dean Kamen told the kids “Don’t get stuck into today.” Technology changes too fast. What you learn in school are tools, because facts are available instantaneously on the internet. Those of us who retain facts are so yesterday that we’ve become the trivial pursuit generation. Any computer, let alone robot, could beat us. Woodie Flowers told the young audience thinking about careers that they must do what machines cannot do, otherwise their jobs will become obsolete. What could be more human than religion? What’s religion got to do with it? This is science and technology!

This year’s competition is FIRST Stronghold. The entire buildup of yesterday’s launch was a takeoff on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What is this I see before me? History? The Middle Ages were nothing if not religion run wild. This was a world ruled by bishops, popes and nobility. It was a world where no matter who you were, God trumped all. Technology meant that a trebuchet was a pretty sexy device and long distance communication traveled at the speed of a horse or human runner. (Or, I suppose, a trebuchet missile.) Now that the humanities have fallen victim to science, we look back to them for inspiration. It reminds me of John Keating in Dead Poets Society: “And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” This hasn’t changed since 1989. Or even 932 for that matter.

Useful Fantasy

UsesOfEnchantmentOnce upon a time, I heard about a book called The Uses of Enchantment. During my doctoral studies it was recommended to me, and I put it on my to read list. That list is quite long, and I don’t follow it in any kind of order. Like life, it is chaotic and ever changing. Now, some decades later, I have finally read Bruno Bettelheim’s classic, and I wish I’d read it when I first knew of it. Originally published in the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment was one of the few serious books that suggests fairy tales are important. Bettelheim was an unapologetic Freudian and in reading his book I found the origin of many of the observations I’d read about fairy tales through the years (what does Red Riding Hood’s wolf represent?) owed their origins to this tome. The book is important even for non-Freudians because it takes great care with a subject that clearly deserves it—our imaginary tales are more than simple entertainment.

Fairy tales are part of a long continuum in human thought. Bettelheim shows that they are very closely related to myths, although mythology is clearly something different. Similar, but not equal. Even more intriguing is the fact that fairy tales are closely tied to religion. Bettelheim notes that several biblical stories could almost be classified as fairy tales. The intellectual life of the child, he notes, for much of history depended on religious stories and fairy tales. The very unrealistic nature of both are intended to speak to children in a way that facts can’t. Indeed, the hardened rationalists sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that we all need fantasy to keep us going from time to time. Bettelheim suggests that biblical stories help children to cope with things on a symbolic level that creates a sense of security.

Already in the 70s, however, many were suggesting that we, as a species, had outgrown our use for fairy tales. Indeed, it is not difficult to find many academics in the humanities who hear the same refrain—we don’t need this fluff. Science, numbers, technology—these are the keys to the future! But what future, I wonder? What kind of world would we have to face without literature, movies, and music? We need our myths still. Despite Disney’s take on them, we need our fairy tales as well. A world without imagination may be efficient, but it is no livable world at all. Bettelheim’s personal demons sometimes cast a shadow over his work. He was a concentration camp survivor, however, and early trauma has a way of staying with a person throughout life. Those with fairy tales to fall back onto may be those best set to survive in the deep, dark woods.